A mine operator in north-west New South Wales could be facing a multi-million dollar fine after allegedly taking water without a licence over three years.
The state’s independent water regulator on Thursday said it commenced prosecution in the Land and Environment Court against Whitehaven Coal over two alleged breaches of the Water Management Act at its Maules Creek coalmine.
The Natural Resources Access Regulator charged the operator for taking water without an access licence over three years between 2016 and 2019 at the mine near Boggabri.
The alleged breaches relate to the failure to divert clean water from major streams on the site, with Whitehaven accused of capturing the water on the mine site, the NRAR said in a statement.
The maximum penalty for a breach of the related section of the Water Management Act for a company is $2m.
NRAR chief regulatory officer Grant Barnes said in a statement that the alleged failure to get licences for the water impacted other water users and the environment – especially during the severe drought.
The Environmental Defenders Office, on behalf of Lock the Gate, had made complaints in relation to Whitehaven Coal’s water use at the Maules Creek site over several years.
“We are really pleased to see the regulator has decided to take action in this case,” the EDO’s principal solicitor, Elaine Johnson, said on Thursday.
Whitehaven Coal said the alleged breaches related to matters NRAR began investigating in 2018.
“Whitehaven has previously publicly addressed aspects of NRAR’s investigation, including noting the complexity of the water management system in NSW and the fact that some of the alleged non-compliances concern practices widely observed in the NSW coal mining sector,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.
The prosecution comes as the state’s independent planning commission commenced public hearings on Thursday for another Whitehaven Coal project, the Vickery mine, in the Gunnedah region.
“Concerns are being consistently raised in those hearings by local farmers and the community about the impact of that mine on water availability for primary producers,” Johnson said.
Lock the Gate NSW spokesperson Georgina Woods said: “We are pleased to see NRAR finally hold Whitehaven to account and look forward to the results of its investigation into illegal groundwater take at Maules Creek mine as well.”